Flamengo and River Plate fans flood to Lima expecting a Copa Libertadores classic

By Samindra Kunti in Lima

November 21 – Tomorrow’s Copa Libertadores final between Brazilian giants Flamengo and defending champions River Plate has all the makings of a classic. but the fan logistics around the switch of the final to Peru raise questions about the direction Conmebol has taken its showpiece club game.

River Plate from Argentina are the reigning South American champions seeking back-to-back Copa Libertadores wins. No team has achieved that feat since Boca Juniors in 2001. In the last four River Plate eliminated their arch rivals in a repeat of last season’s final. The match in Lima may not be a repeat of the ‘finals to end all finals’ that hooked Argentina and hipster fans around the world last year, but in footballing terms the game might well surpass all the drama of the Boca-River derby. There is little doubt that River Plate can play superb football and possess continental pedigree.

Flamengo have experienced a renaissance since the appointment of coach Jorge Jesus on the eve of the Copa America. The Portuguese is the final piece in the jigsaw after the club reorganised its finances over the past few seasons. That has allowed the club to spend on incoming players and Jesus to build a formidable team that plays modern possession-based football with a high press, a rare concept in domestic Brazilian football. Off the field, Flamengo enjoyed a revenue of $142 million in the first nine months of the year.

The winner of the final will earn a spot at the Club World Cup in Qatar in December where a potential final with Liverpool awaits. In 1981, the last time Flamengo reached the Copa Libertadores final, the Brazilians, led by Zico, won the Intercontinental Cup 3-0 against Liverpool.

Since Tuesday, fans have slowly been filtering into the Peruvian capital. Their presence is a minor miracle after Conmebol moved the final belatedly from Santiago to Lima. The South American governing body’s hand was forced by nationwide protests in Chile, but Conmebol at first maintained that Santiago would still stage the final. Shortly after the APEC meeting was cancelled in the Chilean capital, Conmebol followed suit and moved the final north to Lima.

That left a lot of fans in disarray and angered. Flights with final destination Lima spiked across the entire continent as fans explored every possible gateway to the Peruvian capital. Weeks before the final return tickets from Rio de Janeiro cost as much as $3000. In one way, Conmebol finally got the Champions League it wanted. In South America, distances are huge, travel expensive and inequality extreme, with Lima a perfect case in point. As a result, ordinary fans have unsurprisingly being excluded from attending the final.

The decision was taken 2018 to introduce a single-final format for its two club competitions, moving away from the traditional home-and-away legs, in a bid to mimic the Champions League and increase the commercial appeal of the Copa Libertadores final. Saturday’s game will be played at 3pm local time which allows Europe and the Middle East to enjoy the match as well with kick off in London at 8pm and in Paris at 9pm.

Earlier this month, Asuncion staged the final of the Copa Sudamericana, the equivalent of the Europa League, between Colon of Argentina and Ecuador’s Independiente del Valle. The Paraguayan capital was close enough for Colon’s fans to flock in large numbers to the game and so the final was deemed a success.

The decision however remains contentious. Conmebol has traded off the unique character of the two-legged Copa Libertadores final for a commercial format that scarcely fits the continent. Nonetheless enough fans of the participating clubs have made their presence felt in Lima. As of Thursday, Brazilians had acquired 17,486 tickets for the final, more than double the number Argentineans fans had snapped up with 8,227 tickets. In total 45,765 out of 50,307 tickets have been sold so far. The Monumental Stadium will have an operating capacity of about 60,000 for the final.

Contact the writer of this story, Samindra Kunti, at moc.l1576359772labto1576359772ofdlr1576359772owedi1576359772sni@o1576359772fni1576359772